“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.” (Mk 9.2)
It has been a long, wet, grey, dark winter so far here in the Issaquah Creek watershed. While we have been spared the intense cold and massive snowfalls visited upon our sisters and brothers to the east, the relentless “parade of storms” from the Pacific Ocean (as local weatherfolk like to call it) can wear away at even the most committed pluviophile.
But even now, signs of spring are beginning to appear amid the ongoing chilly damp. It is no coincidence that our impending liturgical season of Lent takes place during this time of transition, as hardened ground begins to soften and give way to the press of shoots from below. We know before we begin that our Lenten journey will lead us through the wilderness to death and resurrection, the inevitable and graced outcome of Jesus’ confrontation with the powers of Empire.
So, on the eve of our entry into this sacred season, we hear Jesus taking a few companions away from the hardened ground of urban noise, poverty and frequent despair to the holy space of a mountaintop. In Mark’s Gospel, this takes place just after the terrifying confrontation between Jesus and Peter over who Jesus is and what that identity means for the way of discipleship. Peter, like so many victims of grinding imperial oppression, longs for the heroic leadership of a Davidic military messiah, one empowered by God to rid the land of the Romans. He cannot abide Jesus’ vocation to break the power of empire by vulnerably absorbing rather than inflicting further suffering and violence. Their mutual rebuke has rendered Peter’s fellow disciples speechless. Jesus understands that a change of venue is required. To clear some psychic space, they must go deep into the realm of God’s immediate power, where the divine voice can be clearly heard. They must go up the mountain.
While in Israel/Palestine in December, we ventured to the top of Mt. Gerizim, currently in Palestinian territory but also home to the only living Samaritan community, for whose ancestors this was the holy mountain. It was the most cloudy day of our two week travels, with a cool breeze blowing across the ancient ruins. We were the only people there that morning, moving quietly around the sacred site. Near the end of our visit, the wind blew a huge cloud right toward us. It was a literally awe-ful moment, as silence and soft mist mixed to envelop us in a cool caress.
To be covered in cloud is to stand where sky and earth meet, the liminal space between the heavenly realm of God’s uncontested control and the earthly battleground between God and empire. For Peter, the enshrouding cloud forces him out of his illusion of control, confronting him with the overwhelming superiority of God’s direct power and presence. It will lead him eventually past the absurd yearning to build mountaintop sukkot for Jesus, Moses and Elijah to (according to Luke in Acts) bold and empowered witness to that very power and presence.
Just as not all of us in our varied watersheds experience the transition from winter to spring as a softening of frozen ground into the promise of bursting buds, so not all have access to mountaintops. Yet we do all experience the hope of spring: the emergence of new life and light after a time of quiescence and darkness. How often do we intentionally interweave our earthy experience of the seasonal shift with the daily movement of the journey of Lent?
As disciples who meet in this space of radical discipleship and Wild Lectionary, how might we purposely connect Lent more deeply with the transfiguring power of earthy engagement? Some years back, Wes was invited to lead a Lenten weekend retreat for a group of United Methodist ministers in Iowa. On the way from the airport, he asked his host what the group was seeking. The host said, “When we went to seminary, we got excited about the new biblical work being done that connected so closely the world of Jesus and our world. But once we got into ministry, we found that many people were paying us not to preach the Gospel, but to offer comfortable affirmation of the status quo. We want to have our fire for the Gospel restoked.” Over the course of the weekend, we engaged the question of the intimate call of footwashing and our common lack of real contact between our fleshy feet and the squishy earth. After a break, one retreatant returned with excitement, radiant with joy. I asked him what had happened. He said, “I went outside, barefoot in the snow, and curled my toes in the crystals. I can’t remember when I last did that!”
Transfiguration does not happen only on mountaintops. It is, though, always to be connected with the reality that we humans are “inspired earth” (see Gen 2.7). Jesus, like Moses and Elijah, knew this to the core of their being. Moses, of course, came down from Mt. Sinai with his face glowing, while Elijah similarly spent forty days and nights on Horeb, “the mount of God” seeking the presence of YHWH (1 Kg 18.8ff). If not a mountain, perhaps a river or some other sacred spot amid your local watershed, will be the place of sacred encounter for you this Lent.
Wherever it might be, and whatever your local experience of winter-into-spring, may your Lenten journey lead you away from the confusion and stress of life amid urban empire and into the clear, open space where God speaks within creation. In that journey, we, like Peter, James and John, can apprehend the divine Presence and hear the divine Voice proclaim:
“This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”
Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator. This week they write to and for us from Galilee.
Wild Lectionary is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.